Car Stories: Classic Alfa Romeo Spider
Updated: Sep 28
The Great Driving Days Alfa Romeo Spider is our longest serving hire car and, belying its maker's reputation, consistently our most reliable.
Here's the story of the original Alfa Spider and some history on our car.
First, Some History
In the 1950s Alfa Romeo was on a roll. It was one of the most desirable car brands in Europe and its cars were exciting to look at and exciting to drive. In the looks department things were aided considerably by having some of the world's greatest car designers - like Pininfarina and Bertone - right on the doorstep.
Alfa worked with Pininfarina to create a series of startling prototypes that tested the limits of aerodynamic styling, an area of design popularised by the new age of jet aircraft. One of these designs, the Superflow of 1956, became the basis for the original Alfa Romeo Duetto. Pininfarina evolved the Superflow through a series of versions culminating in the generously named Alfa Romeo Guilietta SS Spider Aerodynamica of 1961. This car's name clearly hints that it was intended to be more than a show car: Giulietta implied that it would be based on Alfa's popular 105 Series Giulia saloon, enabling the firm to put it into production economically by sharing existing mechanicals.
The Aerodynamica was almost identical to the original Alfa Duetto, but it took Alfa until 1966 to launch the production-ready car, mainly because the firm was busy launching other models. ‘Duetto’ was the result of a competition to name the car, but due to trademark restrictions it was officially known with typical understatement as the Alfa Spider - Italian for 'convertible.'
The Duetto's astonishing styling set it apart from competitors, as did its advanced engine and handling. The design is now considered iconic, but it was not universally popular. 1960s buyers found the rear end styling too outre alongside Alfa’s generally much more prosaic models. During the early years of the Spider Alfa introduced 1300cc and 1750cc versions of the twin cam engine to complement the original 1600cc.
Three years after launch Alfa addressed criticisms of the styling and redesigned the car with a cut off Kamm Tail, creating the Series 2 of 1969. The original Series 1 is retrospectively known as the 'Boat Tail' because it resembles the beautiful Riva boats that populate Italian Lakes in the summer. Every subsequent Alfa during the car's ongoing 20 year production run was based on the Series 2 style.
In the early 1980s Alfa was in trouble. Cash was in short supply, mainly due to rust problems resulting in slow sales and warranty claims, particularly on its superlative AlfaSud model. To eke out extra life from its existing models, Alfa embarked on a very 80s programme of ‘sportification’ which essentially involved adding spoilers to every model and trying to charge more. The pretty Spider didn’t escape this ‘be-spoilering.’ In 1983 Alfa launched the Series 3 Spider ‘Aerodynamica.’ The name was a nod to the original prototypes of the 1950s and a convenient excuse to use up some more spoilers. Whereas the original 'Aerodynamica' models had featured clever integral aerodynamic styling, the new car took a more bolt-on approach to the process of pushing metal through air. It's front and rear spoilers were definitely 80s 'on trend' but didn't exactly improve the car's looks and probably didn't do much for the aerodynamics either.
One positive development with the Series 3 Spider was the introduction of a high performance version, the 'Quadrifoglio Verde' (Green Cloverleaf), which used a 2 litre 126 bhp version of the venerable twin cam. Although the Series 3 came in for a lot of criticism at the time - due to those questionable spoilers and its 17 years old design - it's worth bearing in mind that the even older MGB had only just gone out of production. And the Spider was dynamically and technically far superior to the MG.
The Series 3 may have felt like the last throw of the dice by a cash strapped firm, but Alfa had one more trick up its sleeve. Clearly sensing a market remained for the aging design, the firm embarked on perhaps the most significant reworking of the Spider in its history. The Series 4 gained redesigned bodywork, big plastic bumpers and a fuel injected version of the 2 litre twin cam featured in the Series 3. The restyling was much more successful than that of the Series 3, cleverly integrating the modern bumpers with the car's existing style without too many changes to the metalwork. The Spider was also pushed upmarket with the additional of luxury features - for 1990 - like electric windows and mirrors. Although the car carried Alfa Romeo badges it was actually built by Pininfarina. It did share some distinctly Alfa-esque characteristics though: in particular the interior's habit of falling apart.
The Series 4 was only available in left hand drive but, despite a high price, the new model doubled sales over the outgoing Series 3 and 22,000 were built in three years. The car was clearly showing its age but the clever makeover, plus a 1990s retro revival, seems to have fuelled the renaissance.
Our Alfa Romeo Spider
I bought our 2 litre 1992 Alfa Spider Series 4 in 2006, to replace my Alfasud. Since then it has covered 60,000 miles on hire and is the longest serving car on our fleet. It is finished in Metallic Red - arguably the best colour - with a tan interior and was imported into the UK from Germany in 1992. This was a common occurrence when the Spider was new: as it was never sold here in right hand drive, two companies set up - one in Hull and one in the South East - to import and convert cars for UK buyers. Our car is one of the Hull conversions.
Early in my ownership I wisely had all the cavities wax injected, which has held rust at bay. The interior, in particular the seats, is very prone to wear so it has been retrimmed. Other work has included a gearbox rebuild and new clutch. During the winter of 2021/22 the car will be resprayed to rectify a number of dings caused in car parks, to which the Spider is very susceptible.
The Spider is always popular with customers: it has much more character and driveability than a MGB and provides an interesting blend of 1960s dynamics and 1990s creature comforts.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days, 01527 893733